Blogging from the road is something I’ve done since the beginning of my travels. The stories that follow have been written and published from the road itself over several years of bicycle adventuring – from roads in Arctic Scandinavia, Canada & the USA, Europe, and most recently my home country, England, which is perhaps the most unusual tale of the lot.
To make reading them in sequence easier, you’ll find navigation buttons after the end of each instalment (just after the sharing buttons – hint!), which will take you directly to the next part.
Arctic Scandinavia By Bicycle In Midwinter (2011)
I decided to post a series of short daily dispatches from my tent on a one-month journey I made in 2011 from Oslo, Norway, up past the Arctic Circle to Bodo, by way of Swedish Lapland. The twist? It was the middle of winter. I wanted to see if it was possible to travel by bike in extreme cold, and if so, what the experience would be like.
Find out by reading the dispatches, starting with Day 1.
Cycling The U.S. West Coast from Vancouver to San Francisco (2012)
The USA wasn’t a place I expected to push the boundaries of adventure. But that wasn’t really the point of this two-month ride. My younger brother Ben had emigrated to Vancouver years before, and this shared journey to San Francisco would be a way of getting to know each other again as adults.
Plus – the USA did surprise me after all, in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Start reading here.
A Recumbent Microadventure Home From The Netherlands (2013)
This journey came about thanks to a wonderfully random and generous offer from a blog reader in the Netherlands. He wanted to give me his spare recumbent bicycle, on one condition: that I collect it from him in person so he could give me a crash-course in riding it.
Obviously it made sense to practice riding recumbent by cycling home to England. Here’s the first in the four-part series telling the story of that very laid-back and strangely retrospective bike trip.
#freeLEJOG – A No-Budget Bike Tour The Length Of Britain (2014)
Bored with hearing people tell me they could never afford to do a big bike trip, I decided to prove the opposite by cycling the length of Britain on the lowest budget imaginable: zero. Not a penny. No credit card as backup. Nothing. And on a bike I rescued from the scrapyard.
It was the scariest and most memorable three weeks of riding I’ve ever done, and by far the steepest learning curve I’ve ever climbed. Read all about it, starting here.
The very first edition of Trailblazer’s Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, compiled by veteran bicycle traveller Stephen Lord, didn’t just help me plan my first big journey; it actually inspired that ride’s very conception.
I can barely believe that that guide has just seen the publication of its third edition. Have I really been doing this for that many years?!
Now with Neil and Harriet Pike (of Pikes On Bikes fame) at the helm, the new edition has been totally revised and updated in light of the changing nature of what’s possible on a bicycle, given a map of the world and a limitless imagination.
It’s still packed full of pre-trip planning advice, as well as the guide’s great strength, which has always been the comprehensive worldwide route planning guide.
They’ve very kindly allowed me to reproduce here my own contribution to the third edition of the guide – a new section dedicated to cycle touring in the little-visited nation of Armenia:
Armenia is sometimes perceived as an unnecessarily mountainous alternative to Azerbaijan when it comes to getting from Georgia to Iran, but it’s actually a worthy cycling destination in its own right. Visas on arrival for most nationalities, stunning mountain landscapes, numerous scenic detours, a rich and tumultuous national heritage, and some of the best-preserved Soviet architecture around are all reasons you might choose to pay this little Caucasian republic a visit.
Routes through the country are more varied in the north, with multiple crossing points from Georgia and several options from there onwards. Maps indicate that stunning road via Noyemberian crosses Azeri territory; with the border conflict a stalemate for decades it’s rarely a problem to travel this route, though you’d be well advised not to venture into no-mans-land. The land borders between Armenia and both Azerbaijan and Turkey remain firmly shut, so overland routes are only possible between Georgian and Iran, whatever your maps may suggest.
Up-and-coming Yerevan is worth a visit; the Genocide Museum sheds lights on the country’s historical woes. As well as possessing a small handful of bike shops and mechanics, it’s also a reliable pick-up point for Iranian visas. If you don’t want to lose an entire kilometre in altitude, however, you can bypass the city on a scenic route via the eastern shore of Lake Sevan, and maybe spot an old Silk Road caravanserai or two on the way over from Martuni to Yeghegnadzor.
The route south to the Iranian border is fairly non-negotiable; only one through route crosses this formidable territory. It’s shared with the trickle of goods traffic to and from Iran, as well as bus services between Yerevan and Tabriz/Tehran, so there are hitching opportunities if the climbs get too much. Expect to tackle five extremely long and challenging mountain passes, the biggest of which is a non-stop ascent from 700m to over 2,500m in altitude.
Detours are usually worth taking; the minor roads are often in a state of disrepair, but they’re much quieter, and as usual it’s here that the memorable and unexpected of Armenia is to be found: lush mountainside forests, naturally-carbonated mineral water springs and thermal baths, ancient monasteries perched on the most unlikely of precipices, and a rural welcome as warm as any you’ll find in the Middle East.
If you’ve time, a side trip to the Mountainous Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh in the local language) will unearth an isolated, time-warped version of Armenia proper; a de facto independent nation unacknowledged on any maps other than Armenia’s own. Decades of fruitless territorial bickering have resulted in a stunning mountain landscape left to flourish with little in the way of modern development, and people even warmer and more receptive to tourists than those in Armenia itself. Watch where you camp; minefields do still exist and are marked as such.
Visas for Karabakh are easily procured at the country’s sole embassy on Nairi Zaryan Street in Yerevan. Having any evidence of a visit to Karabakh in your passport will exclude you entirely from entry to Azerbaijan. Don’t be tempted to try any route in or out of Karabakh other than the prescribed one between Goris and Stepanakert; at least not unless you fancy looking down the barrel of an Azeri-wielded Kalashnikov.
In terms of national and international transport, Yerevan is now well-served by budget airlines from Europe, Dubai and various Russian airports. Minibus services – mashrutkas – can usually be persuaded to carry bicycles, running all over the nation from a variety of bus depots in Yerevan, as well as to neighbouring capital cities. The sleeper train between Tbilisi and Yerevan is an experience all of its own, and relatively easy to wangle a bicycle onto too.
Get your copy of the 3rd edition of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook from Amazon.co.uk*.
Tim’s website TheNextChallenge.org is one of the UK adventure blogging scene’s long-runners. The sheer volume of practical resources for expedition planning he’s made available online is staggering and frankly puts my own efforts to shame.
The book itself is a short-ish primer, rather than an encyclopaedic manual on the topic, and because of this it’s as much about providing inspiration and motivation that this thing is possible as telling you how to do it.
And while the title of the book implies a circumnavigation, the advice inside is relevant to the planning of any long-distance ride, regardless of whether it involves actually circling the globe.
Tim has thoughtfully included Q&As with and tips from a wide spread of other world cyclists, including Mark Beaumont, Alastair Humphreys, Julian Sayarer, and many others, which results in a diverse spread of advice, rather than a dogmatic approach based on one person’s experience.
If you’re keen to get to grips quickly with exactly what it takes to pull off such a trip, and don’t want to get bogged down in the details, I’d highly recommend giving How To Cycle Around The World a read.
Every month I post a round-up of the reading material that’s passed through my world, some newly published, and some previously published but new to me.
I spent much of the last month on the road in Central Europe (blogs upcoming), giving me a luxurious abundance of reading time. So this month I’d like to draw attention to a book that aims to do no less than unravel what it is that sends people on ‘quests’, and the story of what has often been called the single greatest expedition for a generation. Let’s start with the latter.
Dark Waters / The Seed Planted Deep by Jason Lewis
If the word ‘epic’ could only be granted only to a single feat of human resilience and determination in the context of an expedition, there’s little doubt that Jason Lewis’s would be a top candidate. In 1994 — the year I started secondary school, aged 11 — Jason, along with university friend Steve Smith, began an odyssey around the world that would take no less than fourteen years to complete.
The scale of the journey that unfolded was immense. The pair met at university during Thatcher’s reign. ‘Expedition 360’ was conceived under John Major, and launched around the same time as the National Lottery was born. The crossing of the Atlantic by pedal boat and the USA on rollerblades provides the storyline of Dark Waters, the first book in Jason’s trilogy of the journey.
Following a road traffic accident which broke both of Jason’s legs, almost a year of rehab would pass in the States, during which Tony Blair’s tenure began, followed by a year’s detour towards South America and back, and then another year of fundraising. New Year’s Day 1999 saw the pair pedalling a boat across the Pacific, after which Steve left the expedition, with Jason completing the Pacific crossing in the new millenium. The second book, The Seed Buried Deep, deals with this part of Jason’s story.
September 11th 2001 found Jason in Australia, where he stayed for four years and saw the US invade Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain pass the Civil Partnership Act, and his mate Steve publish Pedalling To Hawaii*. Kayaking to South-east Asia and then cycling to India, Jason crossed the Arabian Sea to Djibouti in 2007 and began cycling north towards the Middle East and Europe as Brown took Prime Ministership.
He arrived back in the UK, having covered 46,505 miles over 4,833 days, a few days after the launch of the original iPhone (and three blokes called Tom, Andy and Mark set off on a bike journey they’d called Ride Earth).
It is seven years since Expedition 360 was completed, a full two decades since it began, and those of us who have read the first two books in Jason’s trilogy are still eagerly awaiting the publication of the third and final book. I say eagerly, for Jason has proved not just a tenacious adventurer but a top-class writer too, and these first two books are among the most brave and entertaining I’ve read in the genre.
What I particularly enjoy about his writing is that he hasn’t been afraid to recount the full spectrum of his experience, from the early days of desperation in trying to mount an expedition from a North London squat, through to his own inner journey towards self-awareness that begins on the Atlantic, to his evolving relationship with his expedition partner, and the parts played by the many and varied souls with which he comes into contact. The brush strokes are broad where they need to be, at other times detailed and subtle, but always balanced and clear-minded.
We as readers should thank our lucky stars that Jason turned down the big publishing deal with the ghost-writer, the six-week turnaround and the lucrative pre-Christmas launch date that was offered to him on a plate. Just like the journey, the retelling and publishing of his story has been a determined and honest struggle, rather than rushed through on the coat-tails of a big team and a big budget. And I don’t imagine for a second that it’s not all the better for it.
Look out for the publication of part three, To The Brink, in the not-too-distant future.
The Happiness Of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau
From three books about a single quest, we segue neatly into a single book about dozens and dozens of other quests around the world, past and present — only a handful of which involve travelling vast distances around the globe.
The Happiness Of Pursuit, released last month, aims to explore the nature of the quest in its broadest possible sense. Hanging from the central thread of the author’s own mission to visit every country in the world, we come across people making athletic, artistic, personal and social endeavours that satisfy both the literal and metaphorical meanings of ‘journeys with a purpose’, including a man who gave up speaking for more than a decade and lived a life of silence, a woman who spent more than a year living at the top of a tree in Tasmania, a lady who dedicated her life to sighting every species of bird on the planet, and a great many more.
Rather than simply recounting these stories (which would be interesting enough on its own), what Chris has attempted to do is distil common patterns and threads from these stories, exploring how and (more importantly) why people embark upon such missions, the way in which they tend to be ignited or conceived, the common phases that people pass through on the way, and the outcome of doing them, which is really at the crux of the book’s thesis: that the concept of a quest can be used, one way or another, to find meaning and purpose in one’s life.
I should state for reasons of candour that parts of my own journey (as recounted in Janapar) make an appearance in this book. Chris’s philosophy is a community-centric one, and though it would have been easier to compile a list of well-known, high-profile quests into a book like this, he instead chose to crowdsource a range of far more unusual stories for this book from his existing community of readers, of which I have been a member for several years.
The Happiness Of Pursuit is shorter than I was expecting. It is neither a comprehensive psychosocial analysis of motivation and fulfilment; nor is it a manual for repeating any of the quests featured within its pages.
What it is, however, is a fascinating, enjoyable and broad-ranging exposé of the many and varied ways in which ordinary people, feeling something lacking in their lives, have taken an all-encomassing leap of faith into the unknown in order to fill that void. And I feel that it’s the repeated mantra that these really are just ordinary people that will prompt those readers who feel the same urge to set forth on quests of their own. For that quality alone it is worth your time.
It seems to be the season for new books (or new editions) in the world of cycle touring. This month I’d like to showcase three recent releases: two travel memoirs and a revised edition of one of the most useful cycle-touring guides there is.
The Road Headed West by Leon McCarron
Leon McCarron has a long list of impressive adventures behind him, amongst them dragging a mattress across a desert for a month, walking the entire breadth of the world’s most populated nation, and — of course — attempting a source to sea of Iran’s longest river (accompanied by yours truly).
So it is interesting that for his first published book he has chosen to write about a cycling journey across the USA.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this would be the least interesting-sounding of his adventures — a long bike ride across a developed English-speaking country with its all-too-familiar culture. But for Leon, this was a rite of passage, a personal coming-of-age journey apparent from the opening paragraph as he ruminates on why it’d be a shame to die at the hands of a drunk, shotgun-wielding rancher, just when life was beginning to get interesting.
It’s this underlying human story that the book is really about, the places and people a backdrop for the growing-up of a young man on the road — yet, as Leon discovers, even cultures we think of as familiar can deliver the greatest surprises. My own coming-of-age journey happened during a crossing of Europe, so I can empathise well with the tale, and if I were in my early twenties and struggling to find a likely-looking path to follow, I’d devour stories like Leon’s ad infinitum. Such tales never get old.
After attending his book launch in London a couple of weeks ago, I asked Leon to explain why he wrote The Road Headed West:
I began writing this book purely for selfish reasons — I just wanted a way to remember what had been a very formative journey for me. The more I wrote, however, the more I realised that this was a story a lot of people could relate to — much of it will be familiar to anyone who has ever travelled, or those who have at one time or another felt the need to escape from ordinary life and seek out a new challenge. My hope for the book is that it will be an entertaining tale to read and, ultimately, that it’ll show how anyone can go on an adventure (and why everyone should!).
Leon’s also put together a short video about his book, which you can watch here.
Laura Mottram, one half of Pedalling About, has just published her account of her and Paddy’s 21,000km exploration of South America on two wheels between 2011 and 2012. As someone who’s never been to South America, I’m devouring this with gusto, and it’s doing a great job of re-igniting those familiar cravings to hit the road again in search of fresh adventures and lessons.
What’s nice about Ipanema Turtles are the local tales of South American politics and society that the author has woven through the book. In her own words:
It’s an inspirational travel memoir about exploration and self-discovery during an adventure of a lifetime. It tells the stories of the strangers we met, close encounters with sloths and tarantulas, and the incredible places we visited, as well as providing an insight into life as a couple on the road.
Ipanema Turtles is also a fantastic read if you want to learn more about the amazing continent that is South America. In the book we explain the stories of the 13 countries through which we rode – the history, culture and politics – as was told to us by the many strangers we met on the road.
Bike Touring Survival Guide by Andrew & Friedel Grant (aka TravellingTwo)
Last but not least is the second edition of TravellingTwo’s cycle touring guide to end all guides. As I said to Friedel recently, one of the main reasons I haven’t been able to muster the impetus to sit down and write a trip-planning guide of my own is because I could never do a better job than she and her husband Andrew have done with the Bike Touring Survival Guide.
Taking the format of a structured Q&A, with each chapter dedicated to comprehensively answering one of the big questions asked by newcomers to cycle touring, as well as plenty of questions a newcomer wouldn’t know to ask, the guide combines the lessons learned from the authors’ own 60,000km of bike touring with the stories and photos of over 50 touring cyclists (including yours truly).
Our leap into the world of cycle touring began with a dream: to bike around the world. At that time (in 2006), it was difficult to find practical information about bike touring. We were searching for straightforward answers to questions such as what to pack, which gear to select, how to plan a route and what life would be like on the road — and we weren’t finding the information we needed. That’s why we wrote the Bike Touring Survival Guide.
I’ll be featuring new adventure, travel and cycling books once a month for as long as there are books to review! If you’ve got a recently-published book you’d like to see here, or are releasing one in the near future, I’d like to hear about it.